Mexico's Route 307
Ignore advertising about the region. The large dive shops that have money enough to advertise are usually corporate owned and part of a large resort. The more personable dive shops along the coast are usually found by asking locals or people who are already tan.
An itinerary is not so necessary with so many campgrounds along the coastline. Traveling by the moment opens up space for spontaneity and the unexpected. The northern half of Mexico's Caribbean coast is completely accessible by route 307, which runs south from Cancun, for a little more than 100 miles down to Tulum. Below Tulum is the biosphere reserve, where the coast is for the most part inaccessible because it's protected.
Long-distance travelers know of the inverse relationship between time spent in a place and the resulting cost of travel. Backpackers and globetrotters can spend very little money each day of their journeys because they've got the time to seek out the good deals. But if you're on a week's vacation, you'll have to spend more per day because you don't have the time to search around for a new hotel or rental car.
By traveling north from Tulum, it's possible to travel cheaply and seek out your own style. With so much open beach, there are many towns along the way. On Mexico's Caribbean coast, even week-long visitors can live in the moment and travel cheaply like a round-the-world backpacker.
Some of the cheapest international flights from Texas and the eastern seaboard are to Cancun. Thousands of tourists arrive each month, so flights are always available. Calling around a few months in advance, having travel agents search for you, looking on the Internet, and calling discount airline brokers, are ways to find a round-trip ticket for under $300.
Some tips: Be flexible on what day and time you can leave; give the agent a few days on each end of a week to find the cheapest flight. Night flights are generally cheaper, as are last minute deals. And never believe someone who tells you that you can't find a lower fare.
Leave Cancun for Tulum the first day, you'll avoid the crowds and expenses, and you'll be able to see the ruins the same day. Secure the return ticket to leave Cancun no earlier than noon, to avoid staying the night in an expensive Cancun hotel.
Since there's only one main road up and down the coast, getting around is easy. There are three cheap methods of transportation: the bus, car rental, or hitching.
The Playa Express is a local bus charging local prices. Dozens of busses run the length of 307 from early morning until late night. To catch one, stand on the side of the road and wait. When you see a bus, wave. If it's not a private charter, it will stop.
Town hopping will cost 5 pesos a ride. The longer the distance, the higher the fare. The express, which stops every few kilometers, isn't really an express, but a local get-to-work bus. The Mexicans who ride the express are friendly folk, so if a chicken is sitting in the last available seat, ask the owner to move it. She's sure to oblige with a smile.
To get to the bus from the airport, you'll have to take a taxi. Ask the driver for the closest place to get the Playa Express southbound on 307. Don't let him charge you more than 25 pesos. And on the way back to the airport at the end of the week, ask the bus driver to drop you off at the "crossroads," where taxi drivers will be lined up ready to go to the airport.
If you plan on bringing your own gear, a rental car is the way to go. You'll save $12 to $20 on each dive by avoiding the equipment rental fees, a good way to defray some of the car rental costs. Just don't leave your tanks in the trunk; the temperature, even in the winter, can reach 90 degrees F.
Volkswagen bugs and busses go for basement prices. Mexican gas, though, is not cheap, and Pemex, the only oil company in Mexico, is the government monopoly.
Then there's hitchhiking, easily done even while carrying a mask, fins and snorkel. Locals and tourists will pick you up, just be sure to know the general location of the town where you want to be dropped off, or at least the distance from your present location.
Many, but not all of the beaches have places to string your hammock and charge about 15 pesos a night for a grass roof or sheltered enclosure. Bringing a tent is not necessary, but it is advisable. With a hammock alone, it's not as easy to find a place to set up.
It can get windy at night and might rain; throwing up a tent to stay dry is possible nearly anywhere. Mexican law states that beaches are public property. So if you find a deserted cove, it's legal to set up for the night.
What to Bring
American citizens can enter Mexico with a passport or birth certificate with a raised seal. Check with your doctor or the Center for Disease Control on the Internet for required immunizations.
All dive shops along the coast prefer payment in American dollars or traveler's checks. Even though it's illegal, many will give change in dollars if you ask. Most will accept major credit cards but charge an extra 10 percent. For everything else—food, camping, souvenirs, etc.—pesos are the accepted currency in the small towns, dollars in Cancun, Cozumel, and some parts of Playa del Carmen, all of which also have ATMs that pay in pesos at the bank's current rate of exchange.
Travel light. The days are hot, the nights cool, and if you do laundry along the way, it will dry in a few hours, even at night. There's really no need to bring more than a change of clothes, something warm for the evenings, suntan lotion, and your mask, fins and snorkel. And even those are not necessary, as the rental equipment is reliable. Just check it first.
Other than that, a map and a phrase book would help, but neither are necessary. Drink plenty of bottled water, and don't forget your certification card!
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication